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Film Review

United 93

(April 30, 2006) Is it possible for a film to be an appropriate memorial for the crew and passengers who were killed when United flight 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco, crashed in a field in southern Pennsylvania on that awful day in September, 2001? We don't think of film as a memorial because it is the opposite of our concept of a memorial: transient images, moving, as opposed to stationary. But this film, by Paul Greengrass, who did Bloody Sunday (2002), the massacre of civil rights marchers in Northern Ireland in 1972, is as effective a memorial as any stone structure. We all know the story. United 93, the fourth hijacked plane, the only one not to hit its target, because the passengers rushed the cockpit and attempted to retake control of the plane.

Greengrass begins with a black screen, as we hear prayers in Arabic, then opens to a Koran held by an obviously Middle Eastern man, and then another, in a motel room. One says to the other, "are you ready"?, then they leave in the early morning. We see them, now a total of four nice looking clean shaven men, come into the airport with nervous glances at each other, pass through security, and sit down at the gate. We see the other passengers waiting as well. Greengrass cuts to an air traffic control center, which is beginning a normal busy day, with the controlled chaos of the control room. And then an Air Force control center, which is beginning a normal training exercise. And back to the gate where the crew boards, joking to each other. Back to the ATCC. And back to the gate when the passengers begin to board, first class first, including the four Middle Eastern men. At the center, one of the controllers is having difficulty contacting a flight out of Boston, and hears an ominous snippet of conversation from the plane, to the effect of "get back in your seats". He is concerned but his supervisor isn't. Meanwhile the passengers continue boarding, one man almost missing the flight, and the doors are shut. The controller notices that the Boston originated flight has changed course and altitude, beginning to head down the Hudson River rather than west to LA. He still cannot reach the cockpit. At this point, they begin to suspect a hijacking. But 93 is delayed about half an hour on takeoff because of the long line of planes in front of it. The control center sees the Boston flight heading to NY City, becomes convinced that they are going to land at a airport, when it suddenly disappears from the screen. The military exercise continues. Then CNN broadcasts a report that a small plane has hit the World Trade Center building and we see smoke pouring out of the building. No one yet makes the connection. Flight 93, having waited in line to takeoff, is now ready to go. And the film continues, cutting back and forth between the various civilian and Air Force control centers, and flight 93. We are right there, in the middle of the confusion and disbelief in the control centers, and the futile efforts to contact the president for shoot down authority. The actual takeover and killing of the pilots and passenger is quick and brutal, but is barely seen. This all unfolds in real time, and the tension becomes almost unbearable. It is one of the most intense films that I have ever seen. There are parts where you must almost force yourself to breathe. Yet this is a film of great restraint and understatement, but riveting. And no heroic music or Harrison Ford leader.

Greengrass's style is documentary, with handheld cameras and extreme close-ups. We hear snippets of conversation and sometimes several conversations at once. He uses a number of the actual participants from both the military and civilian control centers, and unknown actors. No one is recognizable to us. And uses the actual dialog of the passengers and crew as they frantically call home from the plane, and discover that other planes have been hijacked and crashed into buildings. At this point they know that will be their fate as well. Many describe the hijacking, saying how much they love the person (or answering machine) to whom they are speaking, or asking them to tell their loved ones how much they love them. These calls just break your heart. An elderly husband comforts his frightened wife, a man prays, a woman cries quietly, a stewardess comforts passengers. Most expect to die but a few become determined to fight. I won't go on, but will say that I left utterly exhausted and convinced that Greengrass has made an important film, timely, indeed a very great film, one that will be as fresh years from now as today. It is art at its best and a fine memorial to those that died. Again, see this on the big screen (Presidio and the AMC theaters). I also felt very angry after I left, thinking about how easily this could have been prevented with armored cockpit doors, standard Israeli policy for years before 9/11.

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